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SPLC sues exclusive golf resort for cheating Jamaican guest workers

Foreign workers at the Kiawah Island Golf Resort in South Carolina were charged recruitment, travel and housing fees that pushed their wages below the minimum required under the H-2B guest worker program.

An exclusive island resort near Charleston, South Carolina, that has earned accolades from travel publications and boasts a golf course that hosted the 2012 PGA Championship cheated its Jamaican guest workers out of their wages over the last three years, according to a federal lawsuit announced by the SPLC today.

The Kiawah Island Golf Resort did not reimburse the workers for hundreds of dollars in recruitment fees that they each paid – as required under the federal H-2B guest worker program. These expenses pushed the wages of the workers below the minimum level required by the program.

The resort also charged the workers excessive fees for employee housing and transportation, and ignored a wage increase mandated by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). The guest workers – who worked as housekeepers, servers, bell persons and in similar positions from 2012 through 2014 – were housed in an apartment complex an hour from the resort and bused to the island.

“Kiawah Island Golf Resort may pride itself on showing guests Southern hospitality, but it treated these workers from Jamaica with anything but hospitality,” said Sarah Rich, SPLC staff attorney. “These workers left their country for what they thought would be a great job opportunity. Instead, they were taken advantage of by an employer unwilling to pay them the wages they were owed.”

The H-2B program allows employers to hire temporary foreign workers only when they certify that they cannot find enough local workers to fill their needs. Employers are required to pay a “prevailing wage” that the DOL has determined will not have an adverse impact on U.S. workers.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has said he personally lobbied the DOL to allow the resort to bring in the workers for the PGA Championship.

Even before the workers arrived at the resort, they incurred expenses that were never reimbursed by the resort, as required by law, such as the costs for guest worker visas and transportation from Jamaica. These two expenses totaled more than $600 per guest worker per year.

As a result of the travel costs and the various fees, the guest workers’ wages fell below the minimum pay required under the Fair Labor Standards Act and below the mandatory H-2B wage set by the federal government. The resort also failed to increase their wages during the 2013 season as required by the Department of Labor. These changes would have meant raises up to an extra $2.20 an hour for certain positions.

Kiawah Island Golf Resort is a lavish tourist destination. Rooms at the resort’s The Sanctuary hotel range from $600 to more than $1,000 per night. It has five golf courses, including The Ocean Course, site of the 2012 PGA Championship and 1991 Ryder Cup. Its website lists a number of honors: Condé Nast Traveler named the island as the No.1 island in North America and the No. 2 island in the world; Golf World magazine named it the top resort in the United States; and Forbes Travel Guide honored its hotel with The Forbes Five-Star Award.

“It’s clear from the treatment of these guest workers that the resort didn’t view them as employees but as a disposable resource to be used up and thrown away. Kiawah Island Golf Resort just wanted servants willing to smile, Rich said.” 

Nancy Bloodgood of The Foster Law Firm’s Charleston, South Carolina, office is serving as the SPLC’s co-counsel.